In his small one-room apartment, pastry chef Farzam Fallah clears off the top of his stove and dumps a pile of sketchbooks on top. Some pocket-size, others large and hardcover, each black book is a gastronomical record of trips he’s taken and what he has created at the farm-to-table restaurant Richmond Station in downtown Toronto. He flips open a sketchpad and starts drawing what appears to be a tapered scoop of ice cream on top of a disc of a cake.
“When I draw, sometimes I stop thinking about the actual dessert and see it as a design more than anything, and it becomes more art than food,” says the 23-year-old whose apartment is adorned with large canvases of his artwork.
For many chefs, sketching out dishes before they even enter the kitchen is a regular ritual to help find balance in their food from both a taste and visual aspect. It’s the unseen part of the creative process where the flavour and visual backbone of a dish are mapped out and catalogued.
“It’s important for a dessert, or anything really, to have a good balance of structure and the abstract,” says Fallah, as he takes a ruler to score lines on his sketchpad. “The brain likes to see structure, but it gets bored when it sees too much of it. You need a balance of the structured and the weird.” With that, he begins drawing wavy lines on the page, which on a plate would be represented by a coulis, a chocolate sauce or any other kind of sweet reduction to go with a cake or ice cream.
The drawings are also an action plan of sorts, a way to see how the diner will dig their forks into a confection. “A chef will design a plate depending on how he wants the guest to eat it. So, if I were to take a fork to this dish, what’s the first thing I’m gonna do?” he says. “If I do a dessert with a swish of sauce on the outside and plate everything else in the centre, the person is going to take a bite from the centre and then drag it to the side to get the sauce.”
The sketches are also a way for chefs to communicate with their cooks how they want their dish to be presented. Vancouver chef Andrea Carlson of Burdock & Co. sketches out her dishes in front of her cooks during morning meetings to help them understand how to plate it. “I have my original notes, but I’ll draw it out again when we meet at 11 a.m.,” she says. “It’s so they understand that the dish needs three beets and the elk will go here and the currants go there. So they understand the scale and the proportions of everything. Redrawing it is like plating it for them without using the actual ingredients.”
Chopped Canada judge Antonio Park posts sketches of hot dishes from his omakase menu at his Montreal eatery, Park Restaurant, on the kitchen wall for his cooks to see during service. While the idea that people eat with their eyes rings true, Park says the presentation isn’t the most important part of a dish. “I’ll draw the plate, condiments, the seasoning, but the most important thing is the flavour, then the texture and then the presentation,” he says. “There are so many chefs who just think about presentation, but I’m thinking why? You can make beautiful food, but before anything else you have to make good food.”
There are times when a dish doesn’t quite translate from paper to plate, however. In his first year of working at Richmond Station, Fallah tried to do a sweet version of el Bulli chef Ferran Adria’s famed dirt dish, which was essentially dehydrated mushrooms made to look like soil. Fallah’s snow-covered version of meringue, milk ice, powders and blueberries didn’t work. “I remember it was really dry and the one time the idea and the aesthetics took over from the flavour.”
Now he is working on an upside-down coconut tart as an homage to dishes at restaurants where he previously worked. The tart is sketched out like a schematic diagram on paper tacked to his fridge – layers of ice cream, a butter crust, coconut cream filling, cubes of jicama compressed in pineapple juice and tarragon. “The tart is upside down so it gives me a better platform to put stuff on it,” he says. “I haven’t made it yet, but things will always change once I put it on a plate. Drawing is like meditation to me, mindlessly drawing lines helps my mind get ideas.”